Although these days the longbow is generally thought of as an English weapon, it was the Welsh who employed the longbow in battle long before the English adopted it or Wales was conquered by England.
While bows and arrows have been around since Paleolithic times, the first confirmed use of the Welsh longbow was in 633 AD, in a battle between the King of Gwynedd, Cadwallon ap Cadfan, and the Northumbrians. An arrow shot from a Welsh bow killed Ofrid, son of Edwin of Northumbria.
During this time, Saxons were not known for their archery in battle. Ralph, the Earl of Hereford, describes an expedition he led against the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn in 1055. His horsemen, who’d ridden into the Welsh mountains, were ambushed by archers shooting so accurately and strongly that, according to the Abingdon Chronicle, ‘the English people fled, before ever a spear had been thrown’. One estimate from the time puts the English casualties at five hundred while the Welsh suffered no losses.
A hundred years later, Gerald of Wales wrote: ‘the bows are … not beautifully formed or polished, quite the opposite; they are rough and lumpy, but stout and strong nonetheless, not only able to shoot an arrow a long way, but also to inflict very severe wounds.’
He states further: “ …one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh… and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal.”
Although the Normans had employed archers at the Battle of Hastings, it wasn’t until 1252, after many confrontations with the Welsh, that the longbow was accepted as a formal military weapon in England. Henry III, who’d faced the power of Welsh bows many times, declared that “all landowning yeomen with an annual income between 40 to a 100 shillings were to be armed and trained with a longbow.”
The English didn’t adopt the bow overnight, however, and they still didn’t take it into battle in the same way the Welsh did, except when wielded by their Welsh allies or mercenaries. Two of the greatest victories for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native ruler of Wales, occurred in the vicinity of Llandeilo. Both involved armies fighting for Edward, the first in 1257 when he was a prince and the second twenty-five years later in 1282 when he was king. In both cases, the English cowered for two days under a hail of arrows from the Welsh and suffered a great defeat.
The Welsh ultimately lost their country in 1282 to King Edward, at which point Welsh bowmen were recruited in large numbers into the English army. This was one of the few ways Welshmen could earn a living wage.
Having faced the longbow in war himself, King Edward elaborated on his father’s decree by banning all sports except archery on Sundays and setting up shooting ranges near church property so worship services could be followed by archery practice.
During the Hundred years war with France, longbowmen, both Welsh and, by now, English, were a prominent part of the English army, sometimes outnumbering the men-at-arms by as many as 10:1. These bowmen mowed down the French ranks, particularly at the Battles of Crecy and Agincourt.
The Normans had always been masters of cultural appropriation and propaganda, and the longbow became seen as an English, rather than Welsh weapon.
Use of the longbow also spread to other places where the Normans had influence, creating an entirely new market force in Europe. The English preferred yew for their bows, and the first documented importation of yew bow staves into England was in 1294. By 1423, the King of Poland was demanding that exports from his country cease to protect his own stock.
Because the best yew was to be found on the Continent, the Statute of Westminster in 1472 required every ship coming into an English port to bring four bowstaves for every tun. Richard III increased this to ten for every tun.
By the 1500s, the yew forests in Europe had been decimated by the demand. In 1562, the Bavarian government pleaded with the Holy Roman Emperor to stop cutting yew because of the damage to the forests. By 1568, there was no more yew to cut.
The shortage of yew coincided with the development of the gun, which over the course of the next hundred years replaced the bow as a weapon of war.